Many in this industry have lived through the growing pains of a young market with limited visibility and little respect. But a number of those who have survived have established themselves as leaders in their profession and are building lucrative businesses. Many more are recent converts, striving to follow in their forebears' footsteps on the path to full-time success.
Yet, few step into the realm of event videography already equipped with the correct blend of creative vision, personal confidence, financial wherewithal, and business savvy to leave their full-time jobs behind and support themselves, and often their families, entirely on the uncertain, indefinite income of a full-time videographer. They want to go full-time but they don't feel capable or aren't ready to take the risk; they're stuck in the part-time syndrome.
What follows is a look into the nature of the part-time syndrome, the challenges inherent in trying to overcome it, and how part-timers can prepare themselves to break through and achieve their goal of becoming full-time event videographers.
Diagnosing the Disease
Becoming a full-time videographer means going into business for yourself as an independent contractor, essentially leaving behind many of the benefits of being a full-time employee. "Any normal job affords you consistency in daily routine, in vacation, in income, in health benefits, in knowing the company's likely not going to go anywhere," says Craig DoVidio, a video production instructor at the Art Institute of Philadelphia and a professional videographer. "When you're on your own, there's not that consistency. This is not a pre-existing business. This is venturing out into the unknown, trying to hang a shingle, and place yourself in a position where you're being judged by your talent. You are the only reason that you succeed or fail. For some of us that's a little scary."
Aspiring auteurs venture into the profession for any number of reasons, and part-timers possess widely varied levels of experience. Yet, those part-time videographers who dream of a day when they can go full-time all tend to share one common trait: they hold full-time jobs outside event videography to help pay the bills.
Balancing full-time employment with a part-time videography business can be challenging, though, as the term part-time videographer is a bit of an oxymoron. The time video production demands is open-ended and the process often consumes many more hours in a week than one would typically associate with a part-time job. Scott Lundgren, owner/operator of Chicago-based Star Video Productions, worked part-time with a video production company for 13 years while maintaining a full-time job before taking the plunge into full-time videography more than a year ago. "Before, working two jobs was very stressful. It was very hard to talk to people, hard to book jobs. You're always afraid that your boss might ask you to come in on Saturday when you've got a videography gig," says Lundgren. "It's like working two full-time jobs."
While shooting an event may have a clearly defined schedule and number of hours on the job required, it's the editing of that video that tends to put the biggest crunch on part-timers' schedules. "The hardest thing about being part-time is finding the time to edit when you're working full-time," says Adam Garland, owner/operator of Chicagoland-based Garland Video Productions and full-time teacher. "I'll have to stay up really late editing jobs, trying to get them back in time. The dilemma is then having to get up and go to work the next day."
Beyond the late-night editing sessions, part-timers often face the prospect of having to drag themselves to their full-time jobs the morning after multi-hour shoots the previous evening. "If I have a Sunday night event to shoot, then I have to go to work the next day," Garland continues. "Sometimes I feel like the full-time videographer really has it made. They can get a good night's rest, and the next day they can focus on editing their jobs."
Holding down a full-time job also means having to work around the responsibilities of a 40-hour-a-week, often Monday-through-Friday schedule. "I've put myself in the situation now where if something comes up during the work week I have to outsource it," says DoVidio, "but it's almost impossible to find qualified, licensed people." And even if you find the right videographers to work with, you're in a position of having to miss out on maximizing your revenue from mid-week work, which is the window of opportunity for corporate jobs.
Despite the added stress and strained schedule of mixing part-time videography with other full-time employment, it's just not feasible for many part-timers to make the leap into full-time work as their responsibilities extend beyond their own well-being to that of their spouses and children. "I'm scared senseless to go full-time because of my obligation to my wife and kids. I can't be out hunting for money every day not knowing where it's coming from next," says DoVidio. "I can't take the chances that other people might feel comfortable taking. I feel like I'm stuck in a situation where I have to make logical decisions regarding my future with money being the most important thing rather than opportunity."
DoVidio also acknowledges the fact that being a father means making himself available to his family despite his already full schedule. "Having children takes up an enormous amount of energy, making it very hard to do much work in your free time. Then, whatever free time you do have, you have to edit," says DoVidio.
Endless hours working, missed opportunities for growth due to full-time responsibilities, feeling stuck in a situation with no easy way out, this is the diagnosis of the part-time syndrome.
Analyzing the Symptoms
Besides the physical and mental toll of holding down two jobs of any sort, those afflicted with the part-time syndrome often suffer from a more subtle and insidious symptom: a sense that because they're part-time their services are less attractive to potential customers than if they were full-time.
"Sometimes I feel funny about it, telling clients that I'm part-time. I wonder if they'd rather have a full-time videographer," Garland says. "Would they be more likely to book a full-time person? Since I'm so new my prices are really affordable, and they're often looking primarily at the bottom-line cost, but I still kind of struggle with telling them I'm a part-time person."
Often this lack of self-confidence is misplaced, some argue. "If you are a professional in whatever career that you choose, you have to know that you're worth something to the general public," says David Goldberg, who builds custom houses while also putting in what increasingly resemble full-time hours as a videographer. "I don't believe that people look at videographers the same way videographers look at themselves. In fact, I think that people's perception of videographers is higher than the actual videographers think of themselves."
They key to success, Goldberg argues, is how videographers present themselves and the work they produce, rather than how they split their time or hedge their professional bets. "I don't think that it's experience as much as professionalism that people are looking for," Goldberg continues. "If you act, dress, and look like a professional, you'll be treated like a professional."
Garland has come to a similar realization as he's become more comfortable informing potential clients that he's a part-time videographer, and as he's begun the process of steadily raising his rates. "I used to think that because I'm part-time I can only command part-time prices," he says. "But then, working whatever number of jobs that I've done and giving the videos back to my customers, I've come to realize that people don't care what they're paying, they want a perfect product." In other words, just because a videographer may charge less money doesn't mean that the level of quality a customer expects from the resultant video is any lower—although the damage that underpriced videographers do to the market (see below) is an important issue that those trying to differentiate their services on that basis ought to consider.
Videographers who don't charge enough due to lack of confidence in the quality of work they can produce should consider gaining more experience before making a push to go full-time. "If people don't think they're good enough to charge enough, then they shouldn't charge anything until they think they are good enough," says Goldberg. "I didn't charge for any of my video productions for at least six months. I would tape anything for anyone. I didn't care if it was my neighbor washing his dog. Digital videotapes are erasable so just keep shooting until you get it right." He recommends serving as an apprentice to a more established videographer as an effective way to learn the ropes of full-time professional event videography.
This mild inferiority complex described above is what often leads videographers towards the much-maligned practice of undercutting on pricing and undervaluing their work, while taking on as many jobs as they can. "A lot of videographers only charge $500 to shoot a wedding because that's all they think they're worth," says Goldberg. "When they start off they try to get every dollar that they can, but you can't possibly go full-time making that amount per wedding."
When it comes right down to it, instituting proper pricing is the bedrock you build a full-time event videography business on. "I believe that your pricing structure is going to do more for your product than anything else. If you can command two, three, five thousand dollars for a video, you can pay an extra cameraman to bring his camera, or pay an editing person if you don't have the right editing equipment," says Goldberg. "But when you don't have your pricing structure under control then there is no wealth to spread around so you end up with an amateurish product."
And for a videography business to expand and sustain growth, it eventually has to rely on additional camera operators and/or editors, either as part-time independent contractors or full-time employees. "I try to keep costs down, but to grow you do have to hire more employees eventually," says Lundgren.
The only way to determine appropriate pricing for services in a particular geographic region is to go out and see what the competition is charging. And the best method for conducting this market research is joining or at least visiting your local or regional videographers' association. "I didn't even know what to charge for my work until I joined a local or national organization because I had no concept of what my work was worth," says Goldberg. "I found out that I was charging way too little, and that's why I was very busy." (For a deeper look into how local and national associations can help you break through the part-time syndrome, see sidebar, "Local Associations--Just Join Already.")
Whether part-time or not, it's videographers' ability to produce high-quality finished products that should ultimately determine how they price themselves. "I don't think because I'm part-time I should get less money for jobs, even though I am lower right now just because of my experience," says Garland. "Once you get more experience, if you're skilled and a client will pay it, there's no reason a part-time person shouldn't get as much as a full-timer."
It should be noted that simply raising prices isn't necessarily the answer, either, as a sizable chunk of potential customers do have to work within tight budgets. "I don't believe that there's only a market for five-thousand-dollar videos. Some people just don't have the money to spend," says Keith Anderson, owner/operator of Chicago-based All Occasions Video and former part-timer.
But just because you may be shooting in a smaller or less lucrative market doesn't change the fact that part-time or full-time, you still have to make a decent hourly rate for your time. Anderson says he's accomplished that feat by increasing efficiency rather than raising his rates. "I've always based my whole pricing plan off of my final product. I knew as I got better and quicker and streamlined my process, my per-hour income would increase," he says. "I'm not giving my client a compromised product, I'm just shortening my editing time and doing the project quicker."
Prescribing a Cure
Establishing a proper pricing schema and gaining confidence in your ability will go a long way towards breaking through the part-time syndrome, but to sustain yourself as a full-time videographer, you have to be able to run your business as a business. "A lot of us are craftsmen but don't have a firm grip on how to run a business properly," says DoVidio. "I think that's a little bit of where I am, trying to figure out how to run the business every day. How do I do my own marketing, paperwork, client meetings, plus the editing and shooting and still have a sane life and sufficient income coming in?"
Despite the creative release associated with long hours spent at an editing station, what will really determine the success of part-timers trying to support themselves as full-timers is how much energy they focus on the business side of event videography. "When I committed to going full-time, I jumped in with both feet. I knew that I needed equipment insurance and some umbrella liability policy, so I got that taken care of right away. I also established a business checking account right up front," says Anderson. "I really just tried to pay more attention to the business side rather than the creative side because I knew that's where my skills lacked. I had to make up for that end of the business if I was to be successful."
Putting into place the necessary structure, paperwork, and protection to succeed as a business is all well and good, but ultimately unnecessary if the most important aspect of running a business is not given its proper due. "The primary reason videographers fail is that they don't allocate enough time for the selling portion of their business," says Anderson. "Out of a week you've got to spend at least a day marketing. You can't wait for the phone to ring. You've got to go get the work before you need the work." Lack of adequate marketing is another characteristic of the part-time syndrome as overworked part-time videographers don't commit, or even have, sufficient time for proper marketing, forcing them to rely on what work comes their way rather than being able to actively seek it out.
To maintain and sustain a successful and profitable full-time event videography business, there needs to be a clear plan of attack, one that accounts for all the demands of running a business alongside the actual creative process of video production. "You've got to have a business plan," says Lundgren. "It's not easy to say, ‘Hey, I'm going to go full-time.' You can't just jump into it. There are a lot of aspects to it. You have to look at your whole life."
Treating the Syndrome Successfully
Part and parcel of any successful business plan is an understanding of at what point part-time videographers can leave their other employment and devote all their energy to a full-time videography business. There is no magic formula for determining the most appropriate time or set of circumstances to attempt that transition, but there are a number of things that should be kept in mind when deciding for oneself if the stars are aligning correctly.
The first issue to assess is access to available funds to help float a videography business through the potential slow periods during the initial startup. "What I've always been told is if you're going into a new business you have to have between six and twelve months of money to support yourself," says Goldberg. "That's where most people fall apart. They'll have ten or fifteen thousand dollars in the bank to start, so they'll be cash-strapped. When you don't have enough money it affects everything in your life, not just your profession."
The equation for determining the savings necessary is simple, although unfortunately not a one-for-one replacement. "If you're making three or four thousand dollars a month pretax from your current full-time employment, and you have benefits, you're going to have to bring in at least another one thousand to fifteen hundred dollars from your full-time videography business," says Goldberg. "You have to know that when you buy health insurance through your employer it's only a couple hundred bucks a month, but when you buy it through COBRA or on your own, it's many, many hundreds of dollars.
"Figure out not only your salary but all of your incidental expenses that you would have to pay if you did go full-time," Goldberg says. "I would then make sure that I had that dollar amount times six to twelve months."
To go full-time, videographers also need to ensure that they have not only high-quality equipment but the insurance of technological redundancy as well. "I've learned from being in the field that you always have to have backups because you never know what's going to happen, and it's a one-time shot when you're shooting these weddings," says Lundgren. "If I go out I make sure I have two mic systems, two cameras, two tripods, and multiple lights."
This doesn't necessarily mean that you need purchase all this redundant technology by yourself, especially if alongside your transition to full-time you also begin to leverage the capabilities of your local videographers' community. "I don't need to go out and buy that latest, greatest piece of technology because everyone has their own now," says DoVidio. "I know I need to get people involved and delegate, be more of a boss and a manager and less of a craftsman."
Goldberg argues that there are great possibilities for finding videographers through connecting with your local or national videographers association that have the right equipment and are willing to lend or rent it. He's also a strong believer in not getting too caught up in the hype of expensive technology and losing sight of a videographer's primary goal. "I don't think that anybody needs a ton of money to get into video production; you just need to produce a good product," he says.
Assuming there's at least decent capital stored in liquid assets as well as sufficient technological capacity and creative capabilities available, the next step is determining just how much work has to be done to reach your financial goals. "Say you want to make eighty thousand dollars a year, you then have to work backwards on how many jobs you need to earn that," says DoVidio. "I'd say that if I had twenty-five jobs booked for 2006, I'd feel comfortable going full-time."
For many part-timers, including DoVidio, it's not quite such a simple economic equation. "When do you break out to full-time? It's been a hard call. To start with, I don't know if I'd consider myself part-time. I wouldn't be able to do my video production work if I didn't have my teaching schedule," says DoVidio, whose "real job" is working three days a week as an instructor at a local college. "The question has more to do with, is there a day when I'm going to stop teaching and concentrate on running my own business?" Because of his commitment to supporting his family, DoVidio and others like him have to hesitate before gambling with their ability to support their families financially and reliably. "In a lot of ways, people may not want to walk out and try it full-time unless they're completely confident that it's going to work. In my case, that's where I am too," he continues. "It scares me a little bit because there aren't any absolutes in this business."
Others see going full-time as the primary goal of their business. "I'm steadily getting into everything that a full-time person has. I've been slowly buying the equipment that I need," says Garland, who currently has one three-chip camera with a one-chip backup and is in the process of buying a second three-chipper to facilitate two-camera shoots. "I'm kind of gradually doing it, hoping that I'll have everything in place and can go full-time. I think that once I have all the equipment that I need, as well as a little more experience, I would love to jump into doing it full-time. Why invest in all of this just to do it part-time?"
For some the decision to go full-time rises up from the convergence of multiple, unmistakable signs that the time to do so is right. "It was when I felt like my work was good enough, I had enough dates on the books, and I knew I was getting the calls. My calendar was filling up, and I could clearly see the path in front of me," says Anderson.
For others the choice is made easier by unforeseen circumstances creating unexpected opportunities such as getting laid off from a full-time job, as was the case with Lundgren, who took the lemons of his sudden unemployment to make the lemonade of his current life as a full-time videographer.
In the end, the spark that ignites successful full-time videography must come from within. "To go from part-time to full-time is something that I don't believe that your customer dictates," says Goldberg, "but something you decide within yourself."